Riding the Rails, Again

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Continuation of the foregoing: Well, Amtrak made good on its promise to get me to Chicago on the train from Washington. The sleeper car–I loved it except for the “sleeper” part. I liked the “roomette” compartment I had–a private compartment with facing seats that was perfect for sitting and watching the landscape roll by. The attendant on my car pulled out the bed and made it up at 10 p.m., and even though the accommodations are on the spartan side, the setup was comfortable enough. But the rocking and rolling and horn-blasting and occasional stops take some getting used to, and then I made things a little harder by not closing the curtains because I thought it was so cool to watch the countryside pass in the dark. A couple times–once in Cleveland, once in Toledo–I woke up with bright lights shining in the window from station platforms.

One surprise to me: The train fell a little bit behind schedule on its way through Maryland, but we actually pulled into Pittsburg 10 minutes or more ahead of the published arrival time, seven hours into the trip. We left Cleveland right on time or even a couple minutes ahead of time, about 3 in the morning. South Bend, Indiana, is the last stop before Chicago–about 80 miles out–and we seemed to be on time leaving there.

Then we hit Gary, maybe 30 miles from the end of the trip, and we stopped. A conductor explained the delay was due to “freight congestion.” (There’s a long history of conflict between Amtrak and freight railroads about which trains get priority on the routes the passenger trains use.) We sat for more than half an hour, then rolled forward slowly for less than a mile and sat for another 10 minutes. And that was what it was like the rest of the trip–it took about two hours to do that final 30-mile leg, and a nearly on-time trip was turned into one that was an hour and a half late. I wasn’t a big deal for me–I was in my nice little compartment and wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, and I actually liked taking a look at the urban scenery as we headed into the city. But watching the crowd of coach passengers exiting at Union Station, I’ll bet there was some complaining going on back there.

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Top photo: The Potomac River in western Maryland. Bottom: The Dan Ryan Expressway, Chicago.

Riding the Rails

I was in in Washington (District of Columbia variety) for a work conference the last couple days. I was all set to fly to Chicago to visit the homeland when things wrapped up. But a little while after our meetings ended early this afternoon, I wondered whether I could take the trip by train instead. I checked Amtrak online, and the Capitol Limited–you don’t take it for granted these trains exist anymore–was scheduled to leave in about an hour. I thought it over for a few minutes as I had coffee with one of my San Francisco radio colleagues. The conclusion of my deliberations: Sure, why not? So I went and grabbed my suitcase from the hotel and walked down to Union Station. I bought a ticket on one of the sleeper cars, and now I’m nearly seven hours out of Washington and twelve from Chicago.

It’s my first overnight train trip since one I took in 1976 after an attempt to hitchhike from Berkeley to Chicago ended with an unfriendly encounter with police in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I decided to catch the train east from there, called my folks and had them wire the money for a one-way ticket. I hiked to the Western Union office, then the train station, and paid my fare. It had been a miserable road trip–rides few and far between and never really long enough to make a dent in the 2,000 miles I was trying to cover. And there was other unpleasant stuff I’ve kind of put out of my mind over the years. A scary ride ride with a couple of drunks who I was scared were too out of it to make the long plunging descent on Interstate 80 from Donner Pass to Reno. The guy who picked me up in Reno and became very threatening after I declined his invitation to come home with him. (Very threatening? When I insisted he let me out of his car–we were now near some desolate place about 10 miles outside town–he complied. But a few minutes later he stopped on the other side of the interstate and called out to me that he had a gun and was going to shoot me. Yeah–I ran down the embankment off the road as fast as I could and stayed there until I saw he was gone. But for the hour or so it took for someone else to stop out there, I expected every approaching car to be this guy coming back to get me.)

When I got on that train in Cheyenne, I was drained and decided I should have a beer. One beer in the middle of the afternoon. It knocked me out, and when I came to I was alone in a coach car, which was filled with a beautiful golden light from the setting sun. For maybe 30 seconds, I had no idea where I was or what I was doing on a train car. It seemed a lot longer. Then I put it together–this is the Chicago train, we’re stopped in Denver, and everyone else has gotten off to have a smoke or stretch or grab a cup of coffee.

This trip is tame compared to that. I’m sitting in the lounge car writing on my phone–Amtrak seems to be a WiFi-free zone, and this is the only way to post. I’m ready to turn in–that’s my mini railroad bunk in the picture. See you in the morning.


Riding the Rails

The Wreck of Old No. 11

As I write, Thom is on an Amtrak train back home from Oregon for his holiday break. The train, the Coast Starlight, arrived in Eugene early yesterday evening from Seattle, already two and a half hours late. Amtrak’s “schedule” says the southbound Starlight should arrive in Emeryville, just down the track from Berkeley, at 8:10 in the morning. We’re several hours past that. Where’s the train? Still more than a hundred miles away, laboring down the valley somewhere north of Sacramento. Amtrak’s website says the train is now due in at 2:08 p.m., 5 hours and 58 minutes late. That’s a fantasy, since the run got to its last stop 6 hours and 46 minutes overdue.

I don’t mean to beat up on Amtrak (aka the quasi-private National Railroad Passenger Corporation). It’s not news that its long-distance trains can’t keep to a schedule. The Department of Transportation’s fiscal 2004 summary of Amtrak’s performance shows the Coast Starlight makes it to the end of the run when the schedule says it will 22.3 percent of the time. The figure for the Sunset Limited, which operates between Los Angeles and Orlando, is 4.3 percent (4.3 percent! Riding an on-time run on that train would be like winning the lottery). Only the shorter routes, like the Capitols in California, the Hiawathas (Chicago-Milwaukee) and the fast intercity runs on the East Coast have on-time rates higher than 70 percent.

Amtrak doesn’t really try to hide this. Its website cautions that if you’re booking a trip on the Coast Starlight or California Zephyr (Chicago-Emeryville) you might want to “plan for the possibility of delays due to freight traffic, track work “or other operating conditions.” This points to a widely cited Amtrak problem: that it’s treated as a second-class service by the companies that actually own the rails it uses. At the same time, though, Amtrak persists in describing rail travel as a wonder not to be missed. The timetable for the Coast Starlight urges you to “discover one of Amtrak’s most awe-inspiring travel experiences.” Of course, there’s more than one way you can read that.

Another well-known part of the Amtrak story is its perennial deep deficit. The Department of Transportation offers a statistic on each line’s loss per passenger. Generally (and predictably), the shorter, more heavily traveled routes — the ones mentioned above that tend to be on schedule sometimes — show the smallest per-passenger loss. The longer the trip, the bigger the loss and necessary public subsidy. Not that there’s anything wrong with transportation subsidies — we wouldn’t have roads, airports or seaports without them. But if you’re underwriting a $466 per passenger loss (the fiscal 2004 figure for the Sunset Limited; the number for the Coast Starlight is $152), you expect to get a little something in return; a meaningful estimate of when the trains arrive and depart would be a start.

I’ve always loved trains, or at least the idea of trains, and have taken a few long trips starting with my first visit to California from Illinois in 1973. The appeal to me of traveling by rail is pretty much the one Amtrak is trying to sell: You get to see the country close up instead of blasting over it in an aluminum tube. But it’s one thing to support a service that’s basically necessary, or if not necessary, more or less efficient; it’s another to pay for something that’s essentially broken and doesn’t appear to have any prospect for getting better the way things are being run now.

So something’s got to change: Do whatever needs to be done and pay whatever needs to be paid to improve service and make it reliable (fat chance; Amtrak has only grudging support from Congress). Or stop pretending you run the long-distance trains on a schedule: just tell passengers you’re pretty sure you can get them where they’re going eventually and to enjoy the scenery. Or let private operators take the lines and see if there’s any way they can both provide service and make them pay, or at least lose less. Or just let the trains go and shove everyone on to buses and planes.